SOME years ago I wandered quite freely into the world’s most repressive country.
No-one stopped me as I stepped into the Stalinist hermit state of North Korea whose “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il passed away this week.
It was back in 2003 and I was visiting my friend John who lived in the South Korean capital Seoul at the time.
As part of my introductio n to the peninsula he took me on the US forces’ tour of the Demilitarised Zone – the strip of land which has divided the country since the Korean War ended in 1953.
At one point our guide showed us around the negotiations hut, a small room which sits literally right on the border.
As I strolled from one side of the room to the other I passed from South to North. For a minute or two I was under the sovereignty of Kim Jong-il, the crazed tyrant who died of a heart attack at the weekend.
Of course my visit to North Korea was much too fleeting to teach me anything about that country but, still, there was something about the weirdness of that frontier which indicated there was a strange regime on the other side of that hut door.
The Demilitarised Zone is one crazy place, not least because of its name.
With a title like that you might assume that the two-mile wide buffer zone contained no soldiers.
But quite the opposite is the case – the DMZ is positively bunged with North Korean, South Korean and American troops.
Tens of thousands of armed men face each other along the 160-mile long strip of land. The Cold War goes on as if the fall of the Berlin Wall never happened.
Occasionally the conflict heats up – hundreds of soldiers were killed in skirmishes along the border in the late 1960s and there’s still the occasional exchange of gunfire today.
But these days the war in the DMZ is mostly fought on the psychological level.
South Korea’s soldiers in the zone try to give off an intimidating air to their Northern enemy. The South’s troops stand guard at the DMZ with their fists clenched in a state of cat-like readiness for conflict (you can see one of these soldiers next to a slightly more relaxed-looking Irishman in the negotiations hut).
The American troops at the DMZ also want to show that they’re hard as nails. So when it rains, as it often does in Korea, Uncle Sam’s finest refuse to wear coats just to show the Northern soldiers that the decadent West still has a bit of backbone. And our Stalinist friends also enjoy a bit of psychological warfare. Back in the 1980s the regime erected the world’s largest flagpole in the DMZ so as their flag would look down on the country’s enemies.
The North Koreans are also keen to present a vision of health and strength. Aware that the outside world knows of their appalling food shortages, the regime at least ensures that its border guards are well-fed.
But despite sending its fittest men up to the front, there is an unavoidable difference between the two groups of Korean soldiers. The Southern troops look taller, stronger and healthier than their Northern enemies.
In a country which suffers from chronic food shortages, a couple of months of extra rice rations can only do so much. There are many ways to demonstrate the relative strengths of the two Koreas.
The South is one of the great success stories of the last few decades, a democratic and free country whose companies such as Samsung, Kia and Hyundai export to the world.
The South’s films, TV shows and pop groups are famous across Asia and the country has hosted the Olympics and the World Cup.
The North by contrast has sealed itself off from the world. Its people are brutally repressed, its economy in ruins.
North Korea does not host international events. In fact, it doesn’t even welcome international visitors – except for a handful of tourists who arrive via China, the country’s only friend.
But the most striking difference between the two countries is simply one of stature – the average North Korean is an incredible six centimetres shorter than the typical South Korean.
There are, of course, no racial differences between the two sets of people which might explain this disparity in height. It’s all down to economics.
There is no more eloquent testimony to the failure of the crazed regime of Kim Jong-il.
His citizens are literally unable to look their Southern cousins in the eye.
As his son, the chubby Kim Jong-un, succeeds to the North Korean throne this week and looks at his horribly malnourished people, we can only hope he realises that the ideology of his father has failed to measure up.